The Amazing Disappearing, Reappearing Artic Ice Cap

by | May 7, 2001

“Danger lies not in what we don’t know, but in what we think we know that just ain’t so.” So reads the e-mail signature of Greg Holloway, a scientist with the Institute of Ocean Sciences in British Columbia. The quote, from Mark Twain, is appropriate. On April 24, Holloway presented a paper to an international […]

“Danger lies not in what we don’t know, but in what we think we know that just ain’t so.” So reads the e-mail signature of Greg Holloway, a scientist with the Institute of Ocean Sciences in British Columbia. The quote, from Mark Twain, is appropriate. On April 24, Holloway presented a paper to an international gathering of Arctic scientists in which he argued that the Arctic ice cap is not melting.

Why is this important? Because reporters — and a few alarmist scientists — have spent the past few years telling us that the Arctic is melting. According to an oft-quoted statistic, the ice cap has already shrunk by as much as 43 percent. This is a crucial warning — a “clarion call,” as one New York Times op-ed put it — that global warming is real and will dunk the globe under a flood of melted water.

But what the reporters say they know, it appears, just ain’t so.

The claims of Arctic thinning are based on thin evidence. Satellite observations from 1978 forward show a decrease in the total area of the Arctic ice cap — but area alone doesn’t mean anything. It’s the volume of ice that matters, and to figure that out, scientists need to know how thick the ice is. American submarines have made measurements of ice thickness since 1958, but to be useful these measurements have to be made at exactly the same place, at exactly the same time of year, over a period of many years. At best, there are only 29 locations — throughout the entire Arctic — where useful comparisons can be made. These few locations are the whole basis for the claim that the ice caps are melting.

And that’s where Holloway’s research comes in. The problem, he says, is that the Arctic ice is constantly moving, pushed along by Arctic winds. But there is natural fluctuation in the pattern and intensity of these winds. Sometimes they push the ice outward from the North Pole, causing it to jam up mostly against Northern Canada. At other times, the ice stays closer to the pole. This, Holloway argues, is the most likely cause for the apparent thinning. The submarine measurements, he says, were taken at just those spots mostly likely to be thinned by changing Arctic wind patterns. But the ice didn’t disappear — it just moved somewhere else. The total Arctic ice loss, Holloway estimates, is closer to 12 percent, of which maybe 3 percent can be attributed to warmer global temperatures. His conclusion: This small reduction is well within the range of natural variability and may have nothing to do with global warming.

Holloway is not, I should mention, a committed global warming skeptic. Like many conscientious scientists I have talked to, he tries to shy away from political issues. He talks about being “sensible” and “responsible” and recognizing the limits of current scientific knowledge.

But the issue is unavoidably political. The global warming hysteria is the basis for the United Nations-backed Kyoto Accord, which would require the United States to slash its energy use by as much as 25 percent over the next decade. That means a massive, self-inflicted energy crisis that would make California’s blackouts look trivial.

Objective science reporting has become a casualty of the Kyoto crusade. Last August, for example, the New York Times hastened its slide from respected news source to leftist propaganda rag, by screaming from its front page that “The North Pole is melting.” The story was based, not on scientific data or even computer models, but on the claims of a single scientist — an apparatchik in the UN global warming bureaucracy — who attended a summertime tourist cruise to the North Pole on a Russian icebreaker. The tourists arrived at the pole, the Times breathlessly reported, and saw open water. “The last time scientists can be certain the pole was awash in water,” the reporter declared, “was more than 50 million years ago.”

Real scientists reminded the Times that stretches of open water in the Arctic are a normal summertime event, caused by shifts in the ice, and the paper was forced to publish an embarrassing retraction. But as recently as a few weeks ago, the Times still reported that changes in Arctic ice “match computer predictions” — i.e., the same old 43 percent figure.

The Times, you may be interested to know, has yet to report on Holloway’s research.

Remember that next time the newspapers push the latest scare story. What you’re told we know, in many cases, just ain’t so.

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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